Supreme Court asked to review Exxon Valedez case

Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Exxon Mobil Corp. is making a final appeal for a review of a court decision ordering the oil giant to pay $2.5 billion in punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

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Exxon Mobil, of Irving, Texas, has been battling the judgment for over a decade. The company has managed to get the award cut in half from the original $5 billion awarded in 1994 by an Anchorage jury to the plaintiffs in the class action suit stemming from the nearly 11 million-gallon crude oil spill in Prince William Sound.

On Monday, it asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the lower court's ruling, according to the Anchorage Daily News. Four of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices must vote in favor of granting Exxon's petition for the case to proceed any further.

In May, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco denied Exxon's request for another hearing in the long-running civil case.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have said that roughly 20 percent of their clients have died during the lawsuit. The living plaintiffs include about 33,000 commercial fishermen, cannery workers, landowners, Natives, local governments and businesses.

The 9th Circuit Court reduced the punitive damages in half because, in part, the company did try to clean up the spill and didn't spill oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez deliberately.

In its petition to the Supreme Court, Exxon raised several criticisms of the 9th Circuit's ruling.

For example, Exxon lawyers questioned whether it's legal for the 9th Circuit to impose punitive damages under maritime law against Exxon for the behavior of one of its captains if Exxon didn't have a direct role in the captain's behavior, and if the captain's behavior was contrary to company policy.

Also, the 9th Circuit's ruling ignores legal precedent on awarding punitive damages, according to Exxon's filing.

Plaintiffs said Monday the issues raised by Exxon have already been argued to death in court.

"This case has no constitutional merit. It's just about money and award levels that have been hashed and rehashed ad nauseam," said Frank Mullen, a Homer salmon gillnetter and plaintiff in the case.

"One way or another, this thing is going to be done in 2008," Mullen said, noting that the Supreme Court has until the end of the year to respond to Exxon's petition.

In a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press, company spokesman Tony Cudmore said Exxon Mobil has paid out $3.5 billion, including compensatory payments, cleanup payments and settlements.

"This case is not about compensating people for damages," Cudmore said in the company's statement. "This case is not about whether any plaintiff is entitled to money for losses that were incurred.

"The ongoing case is about whether further punishment of Exxon is warranted. As the courts have recognized, most of the plaintiffs were fully compensated for their actual damages within one year of the spill."

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